Can 'Avatar' match 'Titanic's' Oscar glory?

Commentary: Film's growing momentum may not be enough

"Avatar" is no "Titanic" -- at least, not yet.

At the boxoffice, the Fox release is powering away. Having topped $1.64 billion in worldwide grosses, it's within hailing distance of surmounting "Titanic's" record of $1.84 billion, long considered unassailable.

On the awards circuit, though, it's another story.

James Cameron's visit to another planet didn't begin screening until early December and was ignored by the first wave of awards givers including the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute. (Having left "Avatar" off its list of top 10 films of 2009, the AFI later put it on its list of "moments of significance.")

"Avatar" also was among the missing when SAG announced its nominations Dec. 17.

Although the movie received plenty of enthusiastic reviews, the nation's top critics' groups -- Los Angeles, New York, the National Society of Film Critics -- unanimously bestowed their top movie prizes on Kathryn's Bigelow's war-torn "The Hurt Locker."

Even when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. unveiled its nominations Dec. 15, the four nominations for "Avatar" were fewer than "Up in the Air" (six) and "Nine" (five).

Since then, though, "Avatar" has been building momentum steadily. As guild nominations have been unveiled in recent weeks, it has picked up mentions from the Producers Guild of America, the DGA and the WGA. It's been included on the nominations lists of the Art Directors Guild, the American Society of Cinematographers and the American Cinema Editors, and Monday it picked up a commanding 11 noms from the Visual Effects Society.

On Sunday, "Avatar" walked off with two key prizes at the 67th annual Golden Globes: best motion picture drama and best director.

That doesn't guarantee Oscar gold, though. During the past 10 years, the Globe winner has gone on to win the best picture Academy Award 60% of the time. On the other hand, winners of the Critics' Choice Award, which went to "Locker" on Friday, have been crowned with the best picture Oscar 80% of the time.

Still, Cameron's first narrative feature since "Titanic" triumphantly set sail in 1997 seems to be following in the wake of that blockbuster-turned-awards juggernaut.

Except that it isn't quite.

When Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 2, "Avatar" isn't on track to collect the 14 nominations that put "Titanic" at the top of the heap, tied with 1950's "All About Eve" for the most Oscar noms ever.

Cameron's grand experiment with digital filmmaking certainly resulted in unique sights onscreen, but it makes it impossible for the movie to stake a claim in as many categories as "Titanic."

For starters, "Avatar" was not on the recently released shortlist for the Academy's makeup award, a category in which "Titanic" earned a nom.

And while "Titanic" earned nominations for best actress (Kate Winslet) and supporting actress (Gloria Stuart), "Avatar" isn't considered a contender in the acting categories.

Fox and the filmmakers are trying to change that, arguing that performance-capture acting is every bit as legitimate and demanding as a live-action turn.

To that end, the studio has taken out ads picturing Zoe Saldana emoting in her performance-capture gear placed side-by-side with onscreen images of her character, Neytiri.

At the Critics' Choice Awards, producer Jon Landau took a moment to insist that the "Avatar" actors turned in more than voice performances.

"The reason the movie works is because we had a tremendous cast," he said. "They trained and they performed, and what you see on the screen is their performances."

Cameron underscored that point when he thanked his actors during his Globes speech, calling them "artists that give us the emotional reaction to this story."

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As audiences, and Cameron's fellow filmmakers, become more familiar with the director's working process, it's a valid argument. In retrospect, Andy Serkis' work as Gollum in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" movies -- which pioneered motion capture as the British actor played a Middle Earth Iago -- deserved more awards attention as well.

But one must ask the follow-up question: Even acknowledging all that Saldana brought to the role, are Academy voters, who don't often embrace genre movies, ready to hand out an acting nom to someone playing a warrior princess? Of course, that essentially is what they did when they nominated Sigourney Weaver for playing Ellen Ripley in Cameron's 1986 "Aliens." So the question becomes: Are they ready to do it again?

Without that makeup nom and absent any acting mentions, "Avatar" comes up at least three noms short of "Titanic's" record haul. And to do even that, it would have to run the table through the other categories -- a tough trick.

For example, "Avatar's" end-credit tune, "I See You," hasn't become as ubiquitous as "Titanic's" "My Heart Will Go On," and winning a costume nom is a tall order since those Na'vi loin cloths were fashioned in a computer rather than a designer's studio. Further, Cameron might have scored a WGA nom, but that doesn't guarantee him an Academy screenplay nom because the WGA didn't consider severalscreenplays, including "Inglourious Basterds," that will come into play in the Oscar voting.

Still, "Avatar" could emerge with nine or 10 Oscar nominations Feb. 2. That wouldn't set any records, but it could turn the sci-fi epic into leader of the pack.